Lago di Bolsena is an absolutely gorgeous lake less than 14 miles from Orvieto, and it seems that the people who appreciate it the most are those very smart folks from either Germany or Holland. When Italians think of water, they’re much more likely to think al mare (to the sea) than al lago (to the lake). And Americans? Well — if Rick Steves hasn’t recommended it, they’ll just pass on by. It’s absolutely astounding the number of people we talk to in Orvieto who either know only vaguely that there is a lake…. somewhere over that hill (they say, pointing to the west)….. or who go to one of its surrounding restaurants perhaps once every 5 years or so.
We consider it an absolute treasure. When the weather is nice, we make the trip at least once a week and if it’s really hot, perhaps 2 times, because the air by the lake always feels at least 10 degrees cooler than Orvieto. And as I mentioned in my last piece, even though the weather wasn’t nice in May, we still insisted on dragging our friends Lynda and Doug there, despite the rain, hail and high winds.
Lake Bolsena was once the crater of a huge and very active volcano. The lake today is 8 miles long, about 7 miles wide, and almost 500 feet deep at its deepest point – so by any standards, the volcano was quite impressive.
There are 3 towns directly on the water – Bolsena, Marta and Capodimonte. Bolsena is the one closest to us and its approach is a beautiful, gently winding road down what would have been the inside of the volcano 370,000 years ago. Today vineyards and olive groves thrive in the volcanic soil along this lovely stretch, giving you dramatic views over the lake as you descend. The town has thoughtfully installed a couple of pull-offs so you can safely stop and take photos along the way – like this one of our friends Cindy and Stephen.
The old town of Bolsena was built on the lower slope leading down to the lake, and if you were paying attention to my 8/22/12 piece entitled How Orvieto Got Its Big Tourist Attraction, you’ll remember that THIS is the town where THE Miracle actually took place. (If you don’t know what THE Miracle is, you’re just going to have to go back and read about it.) Unfortunately for Bolsena, while it got The Miracle, it wasn’t the town where the Pope hung out, so it didn’t get the big, showy, tourist-attraction cathedral.
Strangely enough, the historic medieval center, while less than 1/2 mile from the lake, feels almost disconnected from it. The castello, fortezza and large palazzi at the top of the town have windows taking advantage of the view, but the small streets where the ordinary people worked and lived in their little shops and homes all look into themselves, away from the water.
However, somewhere along the line, a road was built down to the lake, and lined with what have now become gigantic plane trees.
At the bottom of this road, right along the lake, is an equally lovely promenade lined with umbrella pines.
Interspersed along both the shaded road and the promenade are hydrangeas of all types and colors. There’s a small, picturesque marina,
plenty of seafood restaurants, and black sand beaches for swimming. Most of these are public but there are a few private, offering beach chairs and bar service.
For you history buffs, the area is littered with Etruscan ruins. In fact, if you try to plant a small geranium in the ground anywhere around this part of Umbria/Lazio/Tuscany, you’re likely to dig up something dating back thousands of years — whether it’s Etruscan or Roman.
A truly astounding amount of care has been given to the water quality of the lake. It’s the cleanest lake in Europe, and in an emergency, you could actually drink it and not expect to be rushed to the hospital a couple of hours later. Waste has been successfully diverted away from the water and there is minimum run-off from the surrounding farmland. No industry is permitted. Outside of the 3 little towns, there are no private homes or hotels on the water. If Lake Bolsena was in the US, there would be condos and large hotel resorts around every inch of the perimeter, and the only way you would get to see the lake without paying would be to fly over. Here, all the nature and beauty — except for the lounge chairs — are free for everyone to enjoy.
On the other side of the lake from Bolsena, Marta and Capodimonte have both grown from their tiny fishing village origins, but you can still see the traditional fishing boats in their harbors, along with the small modern pleasure boats. And they, too, have beautiful tree-lined promenades by the water.
There are a few modest camp grounds scattered around the lake, and as I mentioned there are also several restaurants. Our favorite has a little dock in front so boaters can tie up and enjoy lunch in the shade. When it’s really hot, Alan likes to go in the crystal clear water between courses to cool off.
One day, as we were having a limoncello after lunch, I saw a strange creature swimming not far from us. He stopped to rest in the rocks near our seats just long enough so I could get his picture, then took off again in search of — I assume — dinner.
OK — I think that I’ve made a pretty good argument in Bolsena’s favor, but just in case you’re still wondering how I really feel about it, I’ll just throw out some random adjectives: delightful, inspiring, gorgeous, peaceful, refreshing, restful, heavenly, calming……and then the adjective everyone who knows me well would expect: FABULOUS!!!!